Get a peek inside NYC Resistor and see where the maker revolution started
Papercraft lamps. Cables hanging everywhere. An overhead clock with a dot-matrix display that looks like the DRADIS from Battlestar Galactica. A vending machine that dispenses food as well as electronics. Someone inside a closet yelling, “firing the laser!” This is the mad-technologist scene you walk into when you visit NYC Resistor, one of the most well-established hackerspaces in New York City.
Hackerspaces are places where nerds, hackers, programmers, artists, or members of the general making community can meet to work together on do-it-yourself projects that usually relate to technology. Think of them as a sort of hangout where people from all sorts of professions that might never jive together normally—like artists and chemists—can work side-by-side on almost anything they can imagine.
All the hackerspaces I have been to exist as nonprofit workshops started up by a few individuals. They serve as independent spaces that encourage the sort of creativity you may not see in a typical school or work environment. NYC Resistor in particular is set up as a workshop space in an old factory building for people that want to mess around with self-built tech.
NYC Resistor isn’t just one of the very first hackerspaces in New York—it’s considered one of the very first hackerspaces in the entire United States, right alongside San Francisco’s Noisebridge. As an organization, NYC Resistor was originally founded in the summer of 2007 by a group of nine individuals that included MakerBot Industries CEO Bre Pettis, as well as Zach Hoeken Smith of MakerBot and RepRap fame.
But despite these close ties to MakerBot, NYC Resistor’s existence actually predates some of the earliest consumer 3D printing technology, and even the Arduino craze.
The nerd den
This high-tech haven resides in an old, creaky four-story warehouse building in downtown Brooklyn, just a few blocks from the ritzy new Barclays Center. Its location in this seemingly low-tech environment seems counterintuitive at first. But walk inside, and you’ll be greeted by a long desk covered with loose circuit boards and overused soldering kits that serves as the hackerspace’s geeky playground area.
NYC Resistor is open on Mondays and Thursdays to hackers, makers, and general tinkerers from all over. Aside from walk-ins, NYC Resistor has about 50 Members who pay $75 in monthly dues. To become a Member, you typically have to come in on open nights or for classes first and get to know people.
Justin Day, MakerBot CTO and NYC Resistor contributing member, told me that becoming a Member is really a trust-building exercise, because every Member receives a key to the building so that they can use the space whenever they want.
The NYC Resistor community also says it isn't interested in increasing its membership, as a gym would be. Instead, admission to the Resistor group is doled out on an invitation-only basis to dedicated makers who work well with the rest of the group.
“Our motto is we learn, share, and make things,” said Justin. “It’s really about the people who come in and are really good at [building] something but not really everything. So we really help each other, learn from each other, and then share that knowledge with other people that come to this space on our open nights and classes.”
On a recent visit, I met a software motion designer named John Oquist, who was developing audio visualizations on his laptop. A few seats over, NYC Resistor Member Adam Mayar was soldering together connections on an old radio faceplate to get it back into working order. I also met two friends, Zach and Sam, who were stripping an old laptop down to its frame to replace the CMOS battery.
But the space isn’t just a great resource for knowledge. Makers have access to just about any electronics tool or any more-traditional hand tool imaginable, like the ever-important hammer. The back room features a wall of shelves filled with an assortment of electronic parts picked from various random projects.
There’s also a machining workshop with milling machines, a CNC (computerized numerical control) machine, table saws, and other power tools. Everyone refers to it as the only room with tools that can hurt, maim, or kill you; so understandably, this is the only area that's closed to the general public.
Well, actually, there is something else that could potentially kill you. Across the hall from the power tools sits a huge 500-pound pipetting robot—the same sort of machine you would find in a science lab. Nick Vermeer, who has been a part of NYC Resistor for four years, commented that the real problem with it is getting it to make slow, small movements.
Apparently, when the arm gets to running at full speed, it will jump and slide across the table it sits on. Not only would it cause a small earthquake if it fell off its table, the moving head in the center does not come to a gradual stop. Instead, this motorized head crashes against the side of the machine, creating a gong-like sound.
On the next desk over, Nick showed me a much less dangerous robotic arm that used to manufacture semiconductors. Since the Resistor folks got their hands on it, they have been working on new brains to control how it moves. The project is nearly complete thanks to a makeshift Linux-based system that consists of a six-axis motor driver connected through a BeagleBone board that can control the arm in real time.
“I like to make stuff that’s physical because I work with software all day,” Nick said, explaining his passion for making. “It’s just really satisfying—that feeling of 'I had something I wanted to do and now I made it.'”
There’s nothing that hasn’t been tinkered with in this hackerspace. Even the shop’s metal smelting kiln has been upgraded with an electronic PID controller. Normally, a kiln comes equipped with a metal rod that expands as it heats up, which prods a switch to turn off the heat. Nick explained how the Resistor team is “testing brass, and a lot of the stuff they are doing needs a [temperature] ramp."
"[Y]ou don’t just care about what temperature it is," Nick continues, "but also about different temperature plateaus that you hit and how long you stay there.”
I also met a man by the name of Juy who is working on indoor farms. These massive three-foot-tall drums rotate plants around a central lighting column. Juy, who hails from France, says the system is designed to work without pesticides, natural sunlight, or even soil to create the purest growing conditions for organic mushrooms, which need to grow in a highly sterile environment. The farms could also be used to grow other microgreen crops, such as onions and mustard plants.
But hackerspaces aren't just good places to go to if you want to build something; they're great resources if you want to learn new skills. On certain nights, Resistor holds classes on how to use laser cutters and how to get started with Arduino (as you might imagine, the latter is Resistor's most popular event).
Even when no event is going on, the makers gather together to share whatever knowledge they have with each other. Nick explained how he recently used all the OpenCV programming skills he had learned from a project controlling robots using computer vision to create a visual presentation for the Brooklyn Ballet.
NYC Resistor has even attracted the attention of some small businesses. Christina Mercando came to the hackerspace for advice on a hardware problem she encountered while creating Bluetooth jewelry.
“The hardware space is becoming more popular,” Christina said. “I get more nervous every day as new hardware comes out. I think that’s just because things are getting smaller like new smartwatches, [rumored] Apple watches, and Google Glass.”
While Christina worries her idea might be taken one day, she’s also confident that the self-made electronics market is getting bigger because it’s easier make stuff than it used to be, thanks in part to more accessible hardware. Meanwhile, it’s easier to start smaller production runs thanks to hardware accelerator programs, as well as services like Kickstarter that can help anyone with an idea get funding.
Outside of the hackerspace, Nick says, some Resistor Members go out to teach at schools. Dustin, a Member of Resistor and a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, runs an introductory robotics program with weekend classes for high school students. Nick himself teaches a class for eight-year-olds.
The making craze
After speaking with Resistor Members who have been there since the beginning, I realized that making isn't just for hardware hackers any more.
“There’s been a swing back to making things for the sake of making them,” said Nick. “Sometimes, you just want to know how it works or sometimes you just want to make it—make your thing. You just have something in your head that you want to get out of it and get it into the real world but now it’s so much easier to do it.”
Thanks to the rise of making technology in the last few years, it’s easier than ever to make anything your mind can imagine. For instance, as Nick explained, you can design a digital file and send it to Shapeways to have it 3D-printed without having to purchase any equipment.
On the components front, Arduino has made putting together physical computing projects way simpler and cheaper than in Nick’s early programming days in the mid-1990s. Back then, a development board alone costed $100. Nick also calls the laser cutter a "gateway drug" to DIY work that you can use to cut out just about anything you want.
Raphael Abrams, one of the founding members of NYC Resistor, shared a similar sentiment about the growing popularity of the maker ethos.
“[I]n terms of the culture at large, making has really caught on, and it’s mainstream now,” Raphael explained. Raphael backed up his claims by mentioning how RadioShack now sells discrete electronic components again, just as it did in the old days when you would work on your tech gear yourself.
“Things like Maker Faire and spaces like these have really brought putting together stuff back into the mainstream consciousness. I’m really happy about that. I certainly am not upset that my cool little niche is getting mainstream because that was the whole mission.”
NYC Resistor has been extremely successful since it opened, and it continues to grow. The space has moved to larger quarters twice, and it will expand further as needed in the future.
NYC Resistor’s next expansion includes a plan to open a new, larger space it's calling “Heavy Industries.” The new space in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood will be dedicated to larger machines, including a 5000-pound milling machine, a larger CNC machine, a welding space, and a lathe. Raphael says to expect larger human-sized hardware projects coming from Resistor in the near future, such as bigger robot arms or a more deadly barbot.